Rediscovering India By Dharampal

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Agricultural Productivity      

Friends this chapter gives you numerous accounts by the British of the high agricultural yields in India and the reasons for high yields like variety of seeds used, sophistication & simplicity of tools, love & care for land, high proportion of greenery and water created conditions where high productivity became more easily possible.  It refers to export of some agricultural implements to England. 

Productivity of Indian Agriculture in Historical Perspective - Average productivity of about 36 quintals per hectare of paddy over a large area covering 800 villages and average productivity of 82 quintals per hectare from the relatively more productive lands seem rather high. Incidentally, the land of Chingleput is of no more than moderate fertility in the Indian context and is not comparable to the fertile lands of Thanjavur district, or the Godavari area. Other accounts of pre-British Indian agriculture have reported equally high figures for the productivity of cultivated lands in various parts of India.

The Ain-I-Akbari records wheat productivity from middling lands which compares well with the highest productivity obtained in post-Green Revolution Indian agriculture. The Cambridge Economic History of India on the basis of the inscriptions of the Chola period (tenth to thirteenth century AD) estimates that average produce from lands of various kinds in South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu may have been around 33 quintals per hectare, and some of the best lands in the relatively infertile Ramnad districts may even have been producing 66 quintals per hectare of paddy.

For early nineteenth century Allahabad, an observer reports productivity of about 40 quintals wheat per hectare. Francis Buchanan traveling in southern as well as eastern India around 1800 estimates rice productivity of about 35 quintals hectare from Coimbatore, and somewhat lower productivity for wheat from the Patna-Gaya area. John Hodgson, a senior member of the Madras Presidency Board of Revenue, in 1807 estimated productivity of almost 60 quintals of paddy per hectare for the relatively better lands in Coimbatore.

An early discussion on Indian agricultural productivity (about three compared to that of England) was published in the Edinburgh Review around 1804. The Edinburgh Review also then commented that the wages of the Indian agricultural laborer were also much more than British counter part. The productivity figures we have obtained for the 800 villages of Chingleput amply confirm the above. Further, the Chingleput data relates to a much more extensive area and cannot possibly be treated as a statistical accident or as the exaggerated impression of an isolated observer.

How does one explain the spectacular yields obtained by the Indian peasant? The explanation usually offered is that since the pressure of population on land was rather low, only the most fertile lands were brought under cultivation. This may be partly true. But this fact must have been equally applicable all over the world. Yet most observers seem to agree that yields obtained in India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century seem higher than the yields obtained in England in the last decades of the last decades of the nineteenth century, after the discovery of the role of nitrogen in plant growth, and consequent agricultural revolution. The English farmers after about 1840 had started to use heavy doses of fertilizers, initially potash from mines of Germany, basic slag from the fast growing British steel works, and during 1840-1860 even importing millions of tons of guano (bird droppings) from distant Peru, in South America, where heaps of guano had accumulated over centuries. This fertilization was subsequently followed by artificial fertilizers.

The high yields of the Indian peasants, therefore, could not have been the result of merely the fortuitous fertility of the lands they chose to cultivate. The details of the technology that made this productivity possible need to be studied carefully. Many eighteenth century western observers have often referred to the sophistication of the then Indian agricultural technology. The aspects, which have been specially noted, are the variety of seeds available to the Indian peasant, the sophistication and simplicity of his tools, and the extreme care and labor he expended in tending to his fields and crops.

According to recent historical findings, 41 different crops were being cultivated annually in the localities of the province of Agra. The number of crops cultivated in other areas of northern India was equally large. For the south of India. Alexander Walker (he was in Malabar and Gujarat from 1780-1810) notes that in Malabar alone upwards of fifty kinds of rice were cultivated. This variety of seed and crops that the Indian peasant possessed and his ability to vary these according to the needs of the soil and the season, seems to set him apart from most other peasant or cultivators of the world whose knowledge was limited to far fewer crops.

Alexander Walker also notes the variety of agricultural implements that the Indian peasants employed. According to him they had different kinds of plough, ‘both drills and common [plough], adapted to different sorts of seed and soil’. The observation of a drill plough working in the fields of southern India in 1795 in fact came as a shock to Captain Thos Halcott who had imagined this type of plough to be then a recent European invention. He was so impressed by these and felt that they were far superior to the drills then in use in England that he sent these various drills, etc., to the semi-official Board of Agriculture in London.

The care that the Indian peasant bestowed upon his crops is legendary. Alexander Walker passing through Gujarat was struck by the neatness of the fields there and remarked that, “The whole world does not produce finer and more beautifully cultivated fields than those in Guzerat.” Referring to the careful habits of the Indian peasants he remarked that, “I have seen from Cape Comorin to the Gulf of Kutch details of the most laborious cultivation, of the collection of manure, of grains sown for fodder, of grains sown promiscuously for the same purpose of an attention to the change of seed, of follows and rotation of crops.”

It is perhaps this careful attention to every aspect of his fields and crops that provided the Indian peasant access to technologies that made such high productivity possible. It must have been such attention and care that helped the Malabar peasant discover the technology of rice propagation by cuttings as noted down by Alexander Walker. However a major component of these technologies was perhaps the way the land in each area was utilized. In the area of the 800 villages of Chingleput that we have talked about, an area equal to half of the total cultivated area was under water. The total cultivated area in these villages is about 54,000 hectares. The area covered under various sources of irrigation amounted to 26,000 hectares. Another 18,000 hectares was under forest. This high proportion of greenery and water perhaps creates conditions where high productivity becomes more easily possible.